In my last post I discussed various problems with the claims from the book 1001 Inventions which attributed much scientific progress to Muslim scientists in the medieval period. Many of those claims in the context of astronomy were lacking, especially compared to the Greco-Roman contribution. However, there is one point that I mentioned was being argued before, but I didn’t talk about it since it was outside of the area of astronomy. However, it is worth doing, so I will make this post about the alleged flight of Abbas Ibn Firnas. As I mentioned before, the exhibit and book made claims about attempted flights by Ibn Firnas, and Taner Edis and Sonja Brentjes were very critical of this in their article for Skeptical Inquirer. However, Jason Colavito had issues with what Edis and Brentjes presented themselves, and Brentjes and Colavito had some back-and-forth. (Another post by Colavito also continues the discussion, and says too many nice things about me.) A big part of the issue was what the 1001 Inventions book and exhibit claimed and how those claims were understood by Edis and Brentjes. Colavito didn’t have the book but only Edis and Brentjes’ summary and assessment. So, I want to look at this more critically and with the main source material in hand just like I did in my previous post.
So first off, what is said to have happened in the 9th century was that Ibn Firnas had jumped off from a high point in the Spanish city of Cordoba. Our earliest source for this is the Moroccan chronicler Ahmed Mohammad al-Maqqari who wrote in the late 16th/early 17th century, about 700 years after the flights of Ibn Firnas. Now, he may be a late source, but al-Maqqari cites contemparies of Ibn Firnas, such as the Cordoban poet Mu’min ibn Said who was critical of Ibn Firnas. Enemy attestation is generally considered significant evidence for historians since it will tell things the other side may be unwilling to. Moreover, if we get something positive said by a hostile source about a character they took umbrage to, that is something that ought to be considered, at least if the source is contemporaneous and in the know. Here is what al-Maqqari says about Ibn Firnas’ flight in full:
Abú-l-’abbás Kasim Ibn Firnas, the physician, was the first who made glass out of clay, and who established fabrics of it in Andalus. He passes also as the first man who introduced into that country the famous treatise on prosody by Khalil, and who taught the science of music. He invented an instrument called al-minkdlah, by means of which time was marked in music without having recourse to notes or figures. Among other very curious experiments which he made, one is his trying to fly. He covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when, according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew to a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but in alighting again on the place whence he had started his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one. Múmen Ibn Sa’id has said, in a verse alluding to this extraordinary man,– “He surpassed in velocity the flight of the ostrich, but he neglected to arm his body with the strength of the vulture.” [This verse is better translated as “He flew faster than the phoenix in his flight when he dressed his body in the feathers of a vulture.”] The same poet has said in allusion to a certain figure of heaven which this Ibn Firnas, who was likewise a consummate astronomer, made in his house, and where the spectators fancied they saw the clouds, the stars, and the lightning, and listened to the terrific noise of thunder,– “The heavens of Abú-l-kásim ‘Abbás, the learned, will deeply impress on thy mind the extent of their perfection and beauty. “Thou shalt hear the thunder roar, lightning will cross thy sight: nay, by Allah! the very firmament will shake to its foundations. “But do not go underneath (the house), lest thou shouldst feel inclined, as I was, (seeing the deception,) to spit in the face of its creator.” The following verse is the composition of Ibn Firnas himself, who addressed it to the Amir Mohammed. “I saw the Prince of the believers, Mohammed, and the flourishing star of benevolence shone bright upon his countenance.” To which Mumen replied, when he was told of it, “Yes, thou art right, but it vanished the very moment thou didst come near it; thou hast made the face of the Khalif a field where the stars flourish; ay, and a dung-hill too, for plants do not thrive without manure.”
So, the only thing quoted about the flight by Al-Maqqari is that Ibn Firnas flew very fast and his body was covered in bird feathers. The rest about his flight is said to come from contemporaneous sources, but we don’t know what those where and if our chronicler also uses less reliable sources as well.
However, this is not the only source on the flight of Ibn Firnas. The website Muslim Heritage, in response to on criticisms of the 1001 Inventions exhibit, notes that there are other works that mention the flight that are older than al-Maqqari, including Ibn Hayyan, a Cordoban from the early 11th century, relatively close to the time of Ibn Firnas. Other historians near the time also record the event. Some of the details we get are that he was airborne for a long distance, though some say a short time, on the order of seconds. These are not necessarily inconsistent. In free-fall Ibrn Firnas, jumping from a tower, would have about 2.5 seconds if the tower or building is ~3 stories tall (minarets could be much taller; Koutoubia’s minaret from the 12th century is 77 meters tall). With even crude wings, some of that energy can take a flyer forward, extend the flight to several seconds and go a considerable distance, on the order of tens of meters. Since we don’t have hard numbers, there is nothing inconsistent with, say, a 10-second flight, and if traveling fast (like a phoenix as the poet said), the it’s possible to go a football field in that time (going 10 m/s, about top running speed for a human).
But how does 1001 Inventions talk about this (pp. 296-300)? First they describe a sort of parachute jump, which seems consistent with what was discussed above. However, they then talk about a later flights in which Ibn Firnas strapped wings to his arms and flew for ten minutes and gained considerable altitude. Here is the quote in full from the book (p. 297):
In the Rusafa area on the outskirts of Cordoba, Ibn Firnas mounted a hill and appeared before the crowd in his bird costume, made from silk covered with eagle feathers… [He] explained with a piece of paper how he planned to fly using the wings fitted on his arms: “Presently, I shall take leave of you. By guiding these wings up and down, I should ascend like the birds. If all goes well, after soaring for a time I should be able to return safely to your side.”
He flew to a significant height and hung in the air for more than ten minutes before plummeting to the ground, breaking the wings and one of his vertebrae.
And now things seem to have jumped the shark. What is described here is a powered flight. Ascending like a bird, flying for 10 minutes before plummeting, guiding wings up and down, returning to the starting point (or at least attempting to). And over and over again, the authors of 1001 Inventions call the wings of Ibn Firnas a “flying machine.” This description is like someone trying to flap their arms and successfully flying this way. And this is impossible. Humans don’t have the build to flap their arms and hold themselves up (at least on Earth; it might work on Titan!). This is not supported by the sources I have mentioned above (and Muslim Heritage has nothing to support that either), and it doesn’t fit what we know about history or physiology. Quite simply, this has as much plausibility as Dumbo.
(In addition, the rationalizing of Ibn Firnas about his fall being due to not having a proper tail which birds land on when coming down is factually wrong; birds do not land as such, and the connection to how aircraft today land is rather tenuous since not all planes land back-wheels first. Here’s a video of a Husky landing front-wheels first. Also, the Wright Brothers’ plane didn’t have a tail strictly speaking. The reason for landing rear-wheel first is not because of aerodynamics strictly but other design features.)
Best I can tell, 1001 Inventions is accepting later legends of the flight as historical fact, while the best sources and the more plausible interpretation of the evidence is not consistent with the powered flight as described. Al-Maqqari does say Ibn Firnas returned to his starting point, but we don’t know if his source is something contemporaneous or later legends that existed when he wrote in the 17th century. So it seems that there is massive conflation of sources and good and bad evidence about this flight.
Now, I don’t doubt that Ibn Firnas had a glider-flight. After all, around the same time the Englishman Eilmer of Malmesbury had a similar flight, and the influential historian of science Lynn Townsend White believed Ibn Firnas made the glider flight. But was Ibn Firnas the first person to make such a glider-flight? Can a Muslim at least have that honor?
Unfortunately, no. We are told about the flight of Yuan Huangtou. In 559 CE, he built a large kite in order to escape from political enemies. His flight was apparently successful, but he was caught and executed anyways. Older Chinese records indicate other attempted flights, such as during the reign of Wang Mang of the Han Dynasty in the first century CE. The kites described are not outlandish, and the sorts of flights they provided are plausible. Marco Polo also talks of these kites as if commonplace; though not a great source, it does square with the other Chinese sources. And they are all much earlier than the flight of Ibn Firnas and Eilmer of Malmesbury.
But could the flight of Ibn Firnas have been the inspiration for Western innovations in flight (Muslim Heritage things so)? China wasn’t, was it? 1001 Inventions suggests that Roger Bacon learned of the idea of the ornithopter potentially from Ibn Firnas when Bacon studied in Cordoba. An interesting claim considering I find no evidence that Bacon ever lived in Spain (the overly-flattering biography of Bacon doesn’t even mention Cordoba and doesn’t connection Spain to Bacon’s life at all). He was an Oxford boy and worked at the University of Paris until becoming a Franciscan. Moreover, Europeans did not generally go to Spain to learn as in universities at this time (the first Spanish universities came in the 13th century and not in Cordoba; Seville’s was founded in c. 1260, well past Bacon’s schooling days), but there was a number of scholars that traveled there to find manuscripts in Arabic and translate them into Latin. Bacon was certainly inspired by Muslim scholarship, but he wasn’t a translator of Arabic texts himself nor did he mention Muslim flight attempts. Besides, is Bacon going to know of a flight by a Muslim in a different country to mentioned by other medieval European sources, or is it more likely he knew about his fellow Englishman Eilmer’s flight? So this connection made by 1001 Inventions is speculation based on nothing.
But could Ibn Firnas have inspired Eilmer? Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this, and it is unlikely since there was not the great discovery of Arab science by Latins until the fall of Toledo to the Crusaders in 1085 (and Cordoba wouldn’t be in Latin hands until the 13th century). Best that we can tell, the flight attempts were independent, just as much as the ones in China. After all, the desire to fly is very common as seen in a plethora of myths, so independent groups making similar attempts at unpowered flights is not that unusual. (I also wouldn’t say the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t try themselves; our records for that are very spotty, so it’s possible a missing record of a gliding flight has been lost to time; it would be a weak argument from silence to say that there were no such attempts.)
So, in summary, here is what the 1001 Inventions exhibit and book got wrong:
- Ibn Firnas almost certainly didn’t have powered flight; any flights would have been with gliders
- Ibn Firnas did not have the first flight; that honor goes to people in China
- It is unlikely that Ibn Firnas inspired anyone in Western Europe, hence a minimization of the “Muslim heritage” for the modern world
It is understandable why the exhibit wanted to make much hay of this flight. It has been very inspirational in the Muslim world, and airports are named after Ibn Firnas. But to make his flight relevant the exhibit got desperate, conflating fact and fantasy, making speculative jumps about who inspired who, and missing out on other attempts at the same thing centuries earlier. So, with a careful look at the evidence, indeed Edis and Brentjes are right in condemning the exhibit on the point of its presentation of flight in the Muslim world. Colavito was correct that Edis and Brentjes didn’t make clear how the exhibit was being inaccurate, but from the quoted text it is apparent that the authors were write in saying the exhibit promoted an early powered flight (though the book doesn’t use those exact words). It’s now very fair to say that the exhibit is propaganda: it has a clear political objective, and the facts are just not there.
I have focused on astronomy and this one flight, but the issues are to be found throughout the exhibit and book. The authors just don’t know ancient science very well, and I don’t think there was much in the way of historical training either. I’m not a trained historian, but I do at least try to learn the ropes and be critical with sources. That is what is failing here. And it’s unfortunate because there is so much the Arab world has contributed to us moderns. Sure, it may not be as impressive as some other cultures, but there is so much beauty gained in art and story we have, and science would not have progressed as it has without Arab contributions. The exhibit could be salvaged, but it will take a lot of work. Perhaps someone could produce a much more satisfactory book. I’d love to have that on my shelf!
Instead, we have Muslim apologetics, and it’s ever worse than the Christian version. On that next time…